April 11, 2013

Panama President Ricardo Martinelli Speaks at Cornell

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Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli spoke to a packed Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall Thursday about his economic and educational successes in Panama.

Before winning the presidency in 2009, Martinelli served as Director of Social Security and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Panama Canal. Martinelli previously ran for president in 2005, receiving just 5.3 percent of the vote.

Having run as a third party candidate in both 2005 and 2009 to break the pattern of Democrats and Republicans in power, Martinelli said he “wanted to be a ‘Ross Perot’” — the major third-party candidate in the 1992 and 1996 U.S. presidential elections. Martinelli said, however, that Perot did not experience the same kind of political success that he eventually did.

Martinelli said before he entered politics, Panama was a country of “the have and the have-nots,” with laws primarily benefitting corporations and upper class.

“I went into politics because I thought my country wasn’t run the proper way,” Martinelli said.

“I’m not a regular politician,” he added, citing his business background.

Martinelli said most countries try to promote investment and improve their economies by helping private companies, but he aims to do the complete opposite by creating major infrastructure projects and lowering taxes.

Since his election, Martinelli said, Panama has had “almost no unemployment”; the country has an unemployment rate of approximately 4.4 percent, according to Central Intelligence Agency reports.

Martinelli also said he has been able to lower tax rates, especially for low-income citizens.

Many citizens earning less than $100,000 per year are exempt from paying income taxes, he said.

Martinelli said he has been able to maintain government revenue by eliminating the concept of illegal immigrants.

After 30 days of being in Panama, immigrants are granted permanent residency and therefore must pay taxes.

Easing the process of citizenship was just one of the things Martinelli has done to make Panama “a more appealing country,” he said.

Martinelli said he has also been working to improve the Panamanian education system, both internally and externally by setting up higher education partnership programs with universities in the U.S. and Europe.

He said Panama currently has such a low high school dropout rate that, instead of graduation rates being an issue, there is a problem of overcrowded classrooms.

Martinelli said education accessibility has been an important initiative to him, with widespread free Internet access and tuition at the University of Panama $26.50 per semester.

“Education is the main drive that makes a country go forward,” Martinelli said. “They can never take what you have in here,” he said, pointing at his head.

Martinelli strongly urged the audience to get involved in politics, not just by making donations but also by considering running for office to make changes from within the government.

“This is not the job to send to a dumb cousin; this is a job for bright people like all of you,” he said.

Martinelli encouraged students to maintain balance while moving forward and keeping track of their objectives.

He said he became stronger from the mistakes he made leading to his 2004 loss.

“Do whatever is necessary to achieve the aim you have in life,” he said, attributing his 2009 win to his perseverance.

Martinelli’s speech followed his signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs to establish a scholarship program for Panamanians to attend the University’s masters programs. Martinelli said the agreement “will change the lives of many Panamanians.”

At the conclusion of his speech, Martinelli received an award from the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs recognizing his efforts to improve education in Panama.

Martinelli’s visit was sponsored by CIPA, the Office of the Vice Provost for International Relations, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Latin American Studies Program and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Original Author: Dara Levy